Volume XXXVI, Number 4
November 2011



Legislatures are ubiquitous in the modern world. They exist even in political systems where, objectively, they do not appear to serve any lawmaking purpose. Legislative scholars typically explain these cases by asserting that such rubber-stamp bodies afford dictatorial regimes a veneer of legitimacy. Occasionally, they also note that legislatures in such systems can function as potential recruitment pools—a means for identifying emerging governing talent. In an intriguing analysis, Edmund Malesky and Paul Schuler explore how leaders in single-party systems make use of information generated by elections where the government’s candidates face no organized opposition. Specifically, they examine contests for the National Assembly of Vietnam in 2007, races in which some competition was allowed, albeit not from any organized opposition. Using candidate-level data, they find little evidence that the government engaged in outright fraud to secure victories for its centrally nominated candidates. Instead, the government produced its preferred outcomes by placing centrally determined nominees in districts where they were virtually assured to be successful because of favorable candidate-to-seats ratios and lower quality competitors. Interestingly, candidate quality appears to matter in this system, with provincial legislators being favored for election to the national assembly by the electorate. The ability to bring home the pork also appears to be rewarded, with an increase in the revenues directed to a district producing a small vote boost for centrally determined nominees. Malesky and Schuler conclude that, at least in this case, the government uses National Assembly elections as a mechanism to generate information on the popularity of local government officials and on the compliance of local government officials with central government mandates.

As readers of the Quarterly are well aware, in recent years spatial theories of legislatures have come to play a prominent role in research, with a concomitant need to estimate legislator ideal points. Usually these ideal points are estimated using roll-call votes, a process that has been reasonably well investigated. Some scholars, however, have turned to using cosponsorship data to generate ideal point estimates. This technique receives the rigorous examination it deserves from Scott W. Desposato, Matthew C. Kearney, and Brian F. Crisp. Using simulations they analyze the statistical properties of ideal points estimated from cosponsorship data, specifically looking at four different models of cosponsorship and three different estimation techniques. Their findings are sobering. Even with a large number of observations, the reliability of estimates is dependent on the underlying model of cosponsorship. There is no preferred model or technique. Thus, what cosponsorship data tell us is driven in large part by the assumptions scholars make about the process that generates cosponsorships. This means that students of legislatures must be sensitive to the formal rules and informal social and political norms of each institution they examine to understand what cosponsorships mean for the questions they want to investigate.

Everyone knows that interest groups are important actors in the legislative process, but the extent of their influence and the issues on which that influence is felt are rarely investigated systematically. Using unusual data gathered by the state of Wisconsin that requires interest groups to report in detail on their lobbying efforts, Nathan Grasse and Brianne Heidbreder examine the role of lobbying in the legislative process. Not surprisingly, they find that increased lobbying on a bill is associated with an increased probability of a bill passing. But they note several important conditional effects, in this case involving bill salience and legislative chamber. Thus, although lobbying works as we would expect, there are important nuances that need to be considered. The challenge is to find similar sorts of opportunities to investigate these questions in other legislatures.

Judicial nominations to the U.S. federal bench have been contentious for the last quarter century. An interesting take on this problem is offered by Nicole Asmussen, who examines problems surrounding female and minority nominees. Using data on lower court nominations from 1977 to 2004, Asmussen notes that female and minority nominations take longer to be decided than nominations of white males and are more likely to be unsuccessful. Building on setter and pivotal politics models, she derives a hypothesis that the greater the gridlock interval in the Senate, the more likely it is that the president nominates a woman and or a minority, because senators are inclined to support them. But she also modifies the hypothesis to see how partisanship matters, conjecturing that it is Republican presidents who are actually more likely to turn to female and/or minority candidates during periods of considerable gridlock. Asmussen’s data analysis confirms that when gridlock is intense, Republican presidents choose female and/or minority candidates, knowing that senators are reluctant to oppose them. In contrast, the size of the gridlock interval makes no difference to the nomination strategies of Democratic presidents because they nominate women and minorities for other reasons. Being able to select the sex or minority status of a judicial nominee enhances the leverage a president enjoys in getting preferred candidates on the bench. Given that conflict over judicial nominations has only increased since 2004, the question becomes whether any of these relationships have changed.

Finally, although as mentioned earlier legislatures are ubiquitous, there are, of course, important fundamental differences among them. One large distinction drawn by Nelson Polsby is the difference between transformative legislatures and arena legislatures. In their article, Matthew Kerby and Kelly Blidook examine the unusually high membership-turnover rate found in the Canadian federal parliament, an arena legislature. Analyzing a longitudinal dataset covering the parliamentary careers and personal characteristics of 1954 MPs who served between 1953 and 2006 and supplemented by a survey of members in 1993 and 2001, they explore the reasons for voluntary departures. Most intriguingly, they find that members who entered parliament with the intention of making an individual impact on policy were twice as likely to leave as those who began their service with the idea of being a team player in the party system. This finding suggests that members of arena-type legislatures who harbor ambitious policy agendas are apt to find their service frustrating—pushing them to leave on their own initiative much earlier than their colleagues whose personal ambitions mesh better with the opportunities offered by the institution.

—Peverill Squire
   Senior Editor


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